Don Stephen Senanayake (October 20, 1884–22 March 1952), first Prime Minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 1947 to 1952.

(This simplified version of the fifth chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, presents the constitutional history of Sri Lanka in light of the principles discussed in the earlier chapters)

It was D S Senanayake who presided over negotiations towards independence, with the Commission led by Lord Soulbury, which was sent to Ceylon to commence discussions during the war, in recognition of the loyal service to the British war effort made by Ceylon and the Board of Ministers. Though initially what was planned was simply a larger measure of self-government, the logic of history, and the imminent independence of India, prompted Britain to agree also to the Ceylonese request for independence.

The new Constitution, under which Ceylon became independent in February 1948, abolished the State Council principle of encouraging a sense of responsibility regarding government in all members of the Legislature. It introduced instead an oppositional system based almost entirely on the British cabinet system. After Parliament was elected, the person who commanded the confidence of a majority of the members of parliament was appointed Prime Minister, and he then appointed a Cabinet to exercise executive power.

Though in the first Parliament that was elected there was no clear majority, D S Senanayake managed to put together a coalition, consisting of his own United National Party (into which S W R D Bandaranaike had already merged his Sinhala Maha Sabha), Goonesinha’s Labour Party, G G Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress, and some other independent politicians. The British system (or Westminster, as it is termed, after the site of the British Parliament), institutionalizes oppositional politics, and accordingly Sri Lanka too now had a leader of the Opposition, who was N M Perera, leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Pakshaya, a Trotskyist grouping. The opposition included other Marxist parties, and also a breakaway group from the Tamil Congress, the Federal Party led by S J Chelvanayakam.

Legislation by majority

This split was caused by opposition to a measure introduced by D S Senanayake’s government after the election that was held in 1947. Alarmed perhaps by the large vote for left parties given by the Indian Tamils (who were well unionized), but perhaps influenced by racial considerations too, Senanayake introduced a bill to restrict citizenship. Indian Tamils were rendered stateless and, though this was based on the idea that they were migrant labourers whom the British had brought over temporarily, it took no account of the fact that many had in fact settled in Sri Lanka. It was understandable that perhaps those who had come over recently to work were not granted citizenship, but even those born in Sri Lanka had to satisfy various requirements involving certification of the place of birth of father and grandfather and great-grandfather. This was practically impossible, given the paucity of records.

Ponnambalam, despite opposing the provisions, remained in the government, but Chelvanayakam and a substantial section of the party saw this measure as the thin end of a wedge designed to entrench a majoritarian approach to politics. They advocated Federalism then as the only solution to continuing deprivation of minority rights. Tamils in general however were undisturbed, and in the next election, in 1952, continued by and large to vote for the Tamil Congress in the north and the UNP in the rest of the country, including the east, as well as in the north. And by and large, schooled as they were in the British system, which endows majorities with massive powers that are not in general abused, most Sri Lankans did not see the dangers of the system they had been given.

Certainly they did not realize the formulaic, and hence largely useless, manner in which the British had transposed to Sri Lanka the safeguards included in the British system. Britain for instance has two houses of Parliament. Though the second, the House of Lords, is not elected and does not represent any particular interests, it has always consisted of individuals with stature who are able and willing to challenge the government of the day. This is essential because one of the main functions of a Second Chamber of Parliament is to check on legislation, with the advantage of a viewpoint not dependent on ordinary electoral considerations, and to amend the legislation put before it, if this seems desirable.

A Second Chamber that is a mirror image of the First, and largely dependent upon it, cannot therefore serve this purpose, or any other. However the Senate instituted by the Soulbury Constitution was set up as though to ensure that it had no independent identity. Half of it was elected by the First Chamber of Parliament, which meant it reflected the composition of that Chamber. The other half was appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, which meant it weighted the Senate heavily in favour of the government of the day.

There was some provision to establish a difference, in that Senators were chosen for six year periods, with one third of them changing every two years. Yet this meant only that, if the government changed, for a couple of years it could expect dogmatic opposition from the Senate, after which once more there would be indiscriminating acquiescence. This was facilitated by the manner in which Senators were chosen. Instead of selecting people of independent ability, as Lord Soulbury in his idealism may have anticipated, governments and opposition alike usually chose partisan supporters or even politicians who had failed to win election to Parliament.

The absence of checks and balances

This took away from the sole provision which the Soulbury Constitution introduced to ensure the independence of the Judiciary. Though the Courts were supposed to be independent, since appointments to Judicial positions were by the government (or by a Judicial Service Commission appointed by the government), and since administration of the Courts came under the Minister of Justice, it was desirable that that Minister at least should not be an ordinary politician. It was therefore constitutionally required that the Minister of Justice (along with at least one other Minister) be from the Senate. Unfortunately, though there were some Ministers of Justice who understood the special requirements of that position, in general they were seen as on a par with other politicians, and many accepted that they too had primarily a political role to play.

The other main safeguard of the Soulbury Constitution was based on the fact that, as in Britain, the Prime Minister is not the Head of State, and has in theory to function on behalf of that Head. In Britain the Head is the King, in Ceylon, under the Soulbury Constitution, it was the Governor-General, who was appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister. That Governor-General then made several appointments, such as to the Judicial or Public Service Commission, on the advice of the Prime Minister.

However the Governor General himself was appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister. There was thus a sense in which he was beholden to the Prime Minister. Thus, the last British Governor continued for a short while as the first Governor-General, and then he was replaced, on D S Senanayake’s recommendation, by Lord Soulbury. Though Senanayake was unlikely to risk rejection by proposing totally unsuitable persons for appointment to various positions, Soulbury in turn was unlikely to question overmuch. Thus all appointments were by and large in the hands of the political power of the day. As time went on the idea that such appointments could be based purely on political considerations came to the fore.

A measure of what was seen as Lord Soulbury’s indebtedness to Senanayake was the manner in which his successor was appointed. Shortly before Senanayake died, prematurely following an accident, Bandaranaike had left the government, convinced that Senanayake and his associates were isolating him to ensure that he would not succeed Senanayake despite his seniority. This left John Kotelawala as the most senior member of the Cabinet. However, when Senanayake died, Soulbury, who was abroad instructed the acting Governor-General not to appoint a successor until his return. Having returned he appointed Senanayake’s son Dudley Senanayake, which it was alleged was a trust enjoined on him by the elder Senanayake. As it happened though, the younger Senanayake resigned shortly after winning the 1952 election, and was replaced by John Kotelawala.

Thus the Westminster system, as practiced in Ceylon from the start, ensured that the powers of the government of the day were not only unchallenged, but were reinforced by the other institutions that were meant to act as checks and balances. The Courts, the Senate, the Minister of Justice, the various Commissions that appointed persons to high posts, the Governor-General, all came under the authority of the Prime Minister. Though the Prime Minister had to command a majority of the members of Parliament, he could ensure its continuation since important positions in Parliament, namely membership of the Cabinet as well as the Speakership, were his to bestow on whomsoever he wished.